3. Through the Heart of England
Day Eight – Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire.
I’d never hiked in what one might call the Heart of England and was looking forward to learning a few things about this mysterious landscape. Such was my ignorance that for the next couple of days I was rarely sure what county I was in. At some point along the Grantham Canal I’d already stumbled through a protruding lump of Leicestershire, but goodness knows where that had happened as around here the counties are interlocked like jigsaw pieces.
Now though I had to survive Nottinghamshire, in which county at around four a.m. I awoke, for the umpteenth time during a short midsummer night, in a random patch of wet grass, cold and miserable.
My head and torso were dry-ish because my mat kept them out of the puddles in my bivy bag. The only way to maintain this residual comfort was to lie awake and completely still on my back, watching the rain pelt onto my wet legs. Whenever I dropped off to sleep I had nightmares about drowning at sea and started to thrash about, ending up in the puddles.
This was a farce. I shoved everything into my rucksack along with several litres of bonus rainwater and limped off along the towpath in the continuing downpour.
A bridge over the canal at least gave me a break from the inexorable precipitation. I sat under it in a puddle and moped. I’d give anything for a hot drink, I thought, but of course it was summer so I hadn’t brought a stove – why would I need one? I’d brought shorts, but the only use for those would be to filter tadpoles from the canal for breakfast. It was one thing after another – now a sopping wet black Labrador appeared out of nowhere, oh no, it’s going to shake itself all over me!
I emerged from under my bridge like a grumpy troll and there were my new friend’s owners, a nice young couple. They took one look at me and invited me home for a mug of tea and a brownie, bless their kind hearts.
After the rather mixed economy of Lincolnshire I was now blundering through relative prosperity, driven by the nearby conurbations rather than any traditional rural employments. Hickling seemed a community on the up with a canalside café (not open until ten), picturesque old houses under renovation and many posh cars, although the canalside pub had suddenly closed a week ago – a last minute disappointment as I’d been hoping to camp there. The village still has three working farms but everyone else is retired or commutes by car into Nottingham, said my informants, he in one of those huge black pickups, she in a snazzy Audi.
Living the dream, they’d knocked together two canalside cottages. Chickens, green wellies, the black Lab, they were probably in their early thirties but looked like kids to me, I sadly realised, as they whizzed off to work leaving me in their front garden with my mug kindly topped up and another brownie sweetly wrapped in tin foil, thank you so much.
Goodness knows what I looked like to them, especially as it was only after another half an hour’s walking I realised I was still wearing a headtorch. On these hikes I fondly envision myself as a slightly impressive figure, a gnarly adventurer, bestriding the countryside like a cross between William Cobbett and Ben Fogle. I fear that to everyone else I’m a small, elderly, antisocial vagrant in a budget-brand jacket who drips everywhere and smells of damp dog.
At Kinoulton it was time finally to leave the Grantham canal along what was supposed to be a memorial avenue but was surprisingly nonexistent on the ground. When I read the sign I found it had recently been replanted.
Also surprisingly nonexistent was a footpath across the terrifying A46. The map showed one alright but the whole area had been colonised by an equestrian establishment, around which I squelched in circles twice.
Eventually I had to be brave and shout across the stable yard to a friendly horsey lady in a fetching pink bobble hat who was industriously fettling withers and currying fetlocks. She cheerily denied there was any right of way in these parts and sent me south to the next junction; I was too scared of the roaring traffic to argue.
Why anyone would positively choose to live by a road like this I can’t fathom, but the swish new house was clearly someone else’s dream and by no means an inexpensive one. I suppose its owner might reasonably point out that I’d positively chosen to spend the previous night in a plastic bag full of cold water.
Despite the unexpected diversion I was cheered to find myself on the Notts Wolds Way. I was then even further cheered to find a wonderful and comprehensively stocked shop at a rustic petrol station on the A606. Do call in if you’re passing Stanton on the Wolds, it’s a veritable cornucopia and does hot coffee. Hot coffee!
Again, when I took up long distance walking I envisioned myself striding like some latter-day Aragorn over timeless wide open landscapes, subsisting on stream water and a handful of berries while composing deathless Wordsworthian couplets.
Instead, on my Cosmic Solstice Rebirth Pilgrimage across Britain I’d found myself slinking like a damp rat from pub to petrol station, cravenly scrounging brownies off innocent residents, slurping instant coffee from a cardboard cup with the desperate enthusiasm of an addict and slopping industrial coronation chicken from my unlikely breakfast sandwich onto my wet cagoule, while a bloke randomly nattered about his dog.
In truth, the Heart of England isn’t a timeless wide open landscape, not any more. Although ostensibly I was walking through “the countryside”, to a man from North Norfolk it didn’t feel properly rural at all. Village pubs had become bistros, barns converted into offices, farms into enterprise parks. All along what amounts to a narrow greenish corridor through a cluster of busy cities I was aware that I was never far from urbanisation, and everywhere there was more traffic noise than I’m used to.
I passed numerous nice houses up narrow lanes and surrounded by fields whose inhabitants seemed to live quasi-suburban lives with their immaculate gardens, new clean cars and tidy horse paddocks. It’s a countryside of cognitive dissonance, especially in the footpath department – I suspect the people in those big, smart houses don’t do much walking.
The general affluence was exemplified by Keyworth, a small town that in Norfolk or Cumbria or County Durham would have a slightly abandoned look but which in South Nottinghamshire seemed busy and positively thriving, with a good selection of shops. There was even a wonderful traditional hardware store in which, depressed by the continuous battering of the rain onto my skull and suddenly remembering Nick Crane’s advice, I had the idea of buying an umbrella and attaching it somehow to my pack.
I spent a good half an hour in here watched by the amused proprietor as I investigated his umbrellas, risking bad luck (according to my Mother) by raising them all indoors, but I couldn’t work out how to make any of them hands free without major surgery. I’ve subsequently been annoyed to read in Walking the Great North Line that Robert Twigger has a hands-free hiking umbrella and swears by it. I must look into the matter again.
There now followed a sequence of top quality public footpaths, located not always without difficulty and negotiated in continuous drizzle.
All through a peaceful and pretty wood at the top of that rape field the footpath had been industrially fenced along either side, as if to this landowner walkers were the most aggressive and destructive vermin that might threaten his sylvan domain. Once through that disconcerting corridor, though, spirits were lifted by a beautiful wild flower meadow full of Yellow Rattle.
Approaching Kegworth the path appeared to cross the main railway line, from a distance I saw several massive trains thundering along it and was finding this idea a little intimidating. It turned out a little brick tunnel had been moled through the embankment, just for the Public Footpath. What a wonderful country, etc, etc.
Kegworth is a wonderful town too with shops and a choice of hot food outlets including a wonderful chippie. And most wonderfully, Rachel’s wonderful AirBnB where I spent a nervous hour trying to scrape mud off my clothes on a very small doormat but succeeding only in spreading it around the tidy kitchen – Rachel wasn’t in, thank goodness.
I then tiptoed in a state of undress up the stairs and threw all my kit into the en suite shower, in which I then tried to get the worst of the filth off everything. Subsequently for a year Rachel has been teasing me on Facebook that she’s ‘still cleaning the shower’. She’s fibbing – if you ever need good value accommodation a jumbo’s trumpet from East Midlands Airport, Rachel’s AirBnB is always immaculately clean and the bed may well be the most comfortable in Leicestershire. Yep, I’d stumbled into another county.
Day Nine – Across the M1
This was my eighth night away from home, so I was more or less halfway; the sixteenth night would be the eve of my birthday and I’d be admiring from a remote mountain eyrie the extensive views of my destination. But for now, dry, and refreshed by kind company and generous toast, I was ambling out of Kegworth and across the M1, a key obstacle and one of the few aspects of this journey I’d taken the trouble previously to reconnoitre. There aren’t any motorways in Norfolk, thank goodness, so at this point I began to really feel I was in another place, far from home. Even though when I drive from home to Wales I get to this point in barely three hours.
The M1 is the same age as me and, rather charmingly, when they built it they put at this point a public footpath along it which is now a little overgrown but still very much extant. It’s quite strange to walk along it, shielded by vegetation but sandwiched between the motorway and the A453, the roar of the traffic percolating through the sixty-year old scrubby trees. The A453 here is also blessed with a good old-fashioned truckstop café into which, despite being full of toast, I was irresistibly drawn for a massive mug of bracing tea and a bacon bap, both absurdly cheap. I then picked my way around a large airport hotel and through the red mud and green crops of the Midlands towards the enigmatic, ancient and atmospheric village of Breedon-on-the-Hill.
If you’ve never been to Breedon it’s well worth a visit to see the curious church, perched on a rock outcrop like a Leicestershire Uluru and also in its own way of a certain ancient sacredness. There’s a wonderful collection of Saxon carvings, interesting box pews and canopy tombs and a piano you can sit and play, badly in my case. I have loads of photos – which I must spare you as I didn’t take them on this walk. I’d visited the church on my recce six months previously and I’m sorry to say that on the actual hike I couldn’t be bothered to climb up there again.
Instead I supported the village shop by buying a pasty and a bottle of strange pop, which I subsequently to my horror discovered was low calorie, I’d thought it was suspiciously expensive. Fancy paying more for less nutrition! Never mind, I made up for this silly error with a top quality healthy snack in the National Trust café at Calke Abbey where I tried desperately to blend in among people my own age who’d driven there in Audis and in clean beige clothes.
I walked through the entire grounds of Calke Abbey against the official one way system, with multiple National Trust members eyeing me suspiciously. As I was leaving, I felt the need to explain my transgressive behaviour to the volunteer manning the entrance, just for a bit of chat. Wow, she said, she’d always wanted to walk across Britain but, well, you know…
I’d been looking forward to Foremark Reservoir because I wanted to visit Carver’s Rocks, a notable SSSI and Derbyshire Wildlife Trust reserve. Heading down the slippery track to the rocks through the dense and lonely woods I encountered a rather peculiar man. Quite large and apparently an adult, he was nonetheless pushing a buggy containing a large humanoid plastic doll. As I stepped off the path he grimaced at me and gestured at his dolly.
‘Hello’, I intoned earnestly, hoping my greeting sufficiently encompassed both him and his plastic friend. Behind him was another man who looked only marginally less strange; I assured myself this must be the first character’s minder, not his accomplice in some dubious dolly deeds desperately done in darkest Derbyshire. I couldn’t help glancing nervously back as I scuttled down and further down into the shady heart of the lonely forest. It was something of a League of Gentlemen moment.
It didn’t help that Carver’s Rocks is a deeply strange place. I walk alone a lot and although I moan about the cold and wet I don’t really fear it, I carry good gear (ha ha, usually), I’m stoic about small injuries and irregular meals and I haven’t actually been killed by cattle yet. As a slightly-built man with zero self-defence skills the one thing I really dread is encountering other humans of ill intent or disturbed mentality, or both.
I didn’t like the look of those guys and hence I didn’t enjoy the brooding silence and the contorted, zoomorphic shapes of the rocks; they reminded me too much of Africa where rocks like these have other lives that no one wants to explain. I could have done with a bit of friendly company. I can’t recall another time in my adult hiking career when I’ve been as involuntarily, irrationally spooked as I was at Carver’s Rocks, and through no fault of the rocks.
So of course this led to my losing concentration and getting a bit lost which didn’t improve my mood; eventually I emerged later than planned into an altogether more groomed section of the National Forest. It was then a long hike into Burton on Trent, much longer than I was expecting even drawn onwards as I was by anticipation of sleeping indoors again – I hadn’t wanted to camp out in such an urban area.
Finally I got to the mighty River Trent which was doubly exciting. For one thing I now passed into Staffordshire and for another more important thing I found myself right outside the Burton Bridge Brewery Tap pub. As my phone battery was low I was compelled to enjoy several pints of their incredibly delicious and reasonably priced ale while scrounging enough electrons to tell Tony via the AirBnB app that I’d be a bit late.
And to tell him again. And again, because Burton is huge; it seemed to take absolutely ages to limp across it although I was admittedly distracted by a large and wonderful Sainsburys. Finally, exhausted, I staggered up to Tony’s front door which was quite a long way out of town but, as I’d cunningly planned, directly on my route.
Another nice, easy-going man, Tony made me feel at home with a friendly chat but then didn’t mind at all if I got on with eating my supper and washing my socks. I was beginning to feel a bit tired and to wonder if I should have scheduled a rest day, well, I’d thought, this route all looks flat, how hard can it be? I hadn’t bargained for bad feet or days of continuous rain; both are very draining.
Still, for now I was dry and warm and my room was clean and comfortable, albeit with the unusual distraction of a woman’s party dresses and other clothes in the open-plan wardrobes. I’d like to assure Tony’s girlfriend I’m not T-curious.
Day Ten – Staffordshire
Things started well thanks to Tony’s kind directions; rather than stomping down the street as I’d anticipated I could get directly back onto my route from his back garden, heading uphill through a field with no right of way but where ‘everyone walks their dogs anyway’.
I had to thread my way through a maze of small fields but then eventually picked up a permissive path through a very nice bit of new ‘National Forest’ at Anslow.
It was then a question of plodding through tidy paddocks and lush farmland, and, thank goodness, in dry weather for once.
Staffordshire in June seems implausibly lush and imperturbable, positively bucolic; you’d think nothing had ever disturbed the gentle progress of farm life in these peaceful parts. You might think these softly rolling swards had never been shaken by any sudden disturbance. But you’d be wrong, as you find out when quite suddenly you almost bump into this large and worrying sign…
This was a little known but quietly legendary place that I’d read about and always wanted to see. A place of peace and danger, an alluring and unforgettably beautiful place into which only a fool would actually venture. A war grave, a memorial to Man’s industrialised madness. A pub quiz question – where was the biggest non-nuclear explosion in either World War? It happened right here, in rural Staffordshire.
Hanbury has a large and inviting-looking pub which locals assured me was still in business but mysteriously wasn’t open when I passed. It also has the large and very interesting church of Saint Werburgh which is so rich in monuments I’m going to have to bore you with a small selection from the numerous photos I took while sidling around the place hoping the gardeners would offer me a cuppa from their well equipped little kitchen. They didn’t.
Unrefreshed and sore-footed, I limped back onto our wonderful heritage of Public Footpaths.
At Draycott in the Clay is the antidote to the splendour of St Werburgh’s, a tiny church made from corrugated iron. I’m told there are several of these in Staffordshire. The other feature of Draycott was the terrifying trucks that came speeding along the narrow road I now had to walk along. They took no prisoners and for a lot of the time there was absolutely no refuge on either side; it was a case of keeping your ears peeled and literally squeezing into the hedge if you heard one coming. You didn’t have time to hang about and woe betide you if the hedge was too dense.
As you can imagine, it was a great relief to get off this seriously quite frightening road and back onto our wonderful heritage of Public Footpaths.
Finally I wended my weary way into some woods, which meant I was almost at day’s end. First though it was necessary to get slightly lost, pacify some alarmingly feisty cattle and negotiate a flooded lane. On the good side the sun came out, slightly.
Those cattle knew exactly where the public footpath was, which was more than I did at that point. Seconds after I took that photo they galloped around in a circle then massed right upon it, daring me to wade through their ankle deep and well manured swamp. Luckily I had my poles and, so far, cattle have always seemed to respond to a waved stick. I wouldn’t walk through cattle country without a stick after the experiences I had on this trip. At least not in a red jacket.
I was delighted to arrive at The Blythe Inn, not least because it turned out to be quite possibly the greatest pub, in the world, ever. I know, I always say that, but the Blythe is seriously a strong contender and not just because they’d cheerily agreed in an email exchange to let me camp for free in their car park. The place was bustling and everyone without exception was super-friendly, the beer was perfect but above all the food was magnificent and ridiculously good value.
The black pudding, bacon and field mushroom starter with its lovely fresh salad garnish would have done many people as a light meal, with a pudding; here it was a starter and an absurd £3.95. Other pubs would add a handful of manky freezer chips to something the same size and less tasty and want a tenner. My two other courses were equally amazing and there was unobtrusive but entertaining live entertainment.
Only with some reluctance did I hobble out and over to the quietest corner of the car park to rig my bivy and lie down gratefully, to the apparent concern of an old chap from a camper van who had ‘just popped over to ask if I were sure I had enough shelter, you know, that doesn’t look much of a tent.’ Appearances were not deceptive, but I was stuffed and warm and miraculously it wasn’t raining.
Day Eleven – Staffordshire
Everything about the Blythe Inn was miraculous, including my night there in the bivy which was the dryest to date. I left that wonderful pub reluctantly, because they aren’t open for breakfast, and pushed through more Staffordshire farmland.
Before I’d got very far I discovered the map I’d carefully downloaded on the pub WiFi the night before was refusing now to display. Then it started to rain. I skulked in a bus shelter that looked as if it hadn’t sheltered a bus passenger for a while stabbing and shaking my phone and cursing the Ordnance Survey. Great, a whole day without detailed rights of way information.
I got very lost, soaked and bramble-ripped trying to find my way across a railway before finally realising you were supposed to walk a tiny, virtually invisible path alongside it.
After I’d trudged along the railway for a while, buffeted by high speed trains, a dog walker kindly tipped me off that I’d soon come to a pub that was open for breakfast. So it proved, The Saracen’s Head at Weston; posh breakfast too and evidently a very successful offering, posh pensioners were pouring in to partake, the car park was full of Audis and Jags.
I hid in a corner so I could cheekily dry my feet under the table on the extra thick quality napkins. Also out of slight embarrassment as I’d taken the precaution of ordering a pint of awesome Plum Porter from Staffordshire’s own Titanic Brewery at nine o’clock in the morning. Breakfast of champions, Titanic Plum Porter.
The rain eased off and so did the hiking, for the next few miles it was just a case of ambling up the Trent & Mersey Canal.
At Stone it once again started to rain heavily, to the extent that I was even tempted by the café of an enormous Marks & Spencers just by the canal. As I started to teeter in this out-of-character direction I was in the nick of time rescued by a splendidly bearded boater in a flat cap. He sent me much more sensibly to the Swan Inn, a legendary ale pub just a few doors away. Their Bristol Brewery Milk Stout was delectable. It was still raining so hard I was then forced to tarry over a Lenton Lane Invincible IPA, a brew so hoppy it would herbalise a horse. As I discovered an hour later and with no woodland anywhere in sight, it also had a distinct laxative effect.
Swynnerton is a strange, feudal place dominated by the vast home of the Earl of Stafford. ‘He’s a nice young man, he comes to mass’, I was told by two ladies heading into the hall’s Victorian Catholic church. This was built after emancipation directly opposite and as a blatant finger up to the village’s ancient parish church, just like the nineteenth century Catholic cathedral in Norwich although on a smaller scale. ‘Of course they stole that old church off us, but we don’t mind as it’s much more expensive to run’. ‘Well, I suppose that’s what matters’, I replied, ‘so the Staffords were recusants?’ My lady informants looked blank. ‘Like the Dukes of Norfolk?’ I offered helpfully. Blanker still. ‘We’re just Catholics, we don’t know about history’.
Slower and still more slowly, tired and more tired, repeatedly tapping out ‘sorry Ali, maybe another hour -?’ on the AirBnB app, I blundered through endless wet vegetation and then zapped myself thoroughly on an electric fence when a stile collapsed. This shocked a bit of life back into me and reanimated like a damp Frankenstein’s monster I finally staggered into Ali’s AirBnb at Ashley. It was absolutely lovely; just great people. They put my smelly kit in the washing machine and even gave me something to eat, refusing extra money. A lovely family in a lovely house; stay there you really should if you’re ever for some strange reason lurking around the far north-west corner of Staffordshire.
I’d made it through the Heart of England and again although I’d walked into Ashley through a peaceful wood and there were country walks all round the village, to me it didn’t feel especially rural. It was all a bit too well organised and groomed. It was all very commutable – urban life somehow never felt far away. Tomorrow I’d be heading into Shropshire, a more ramshackle sort of place. A county with no city and where the wide open spaces are wider and more open, the countryside more like my home. But hillier.